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Sea Squirt Drug Offers Cancer Hope

Yondelis Fights Deadly Soft-Tissue Cancer
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 21, 2007 -- A compound derived from the lowly sea squirt fights a deadly type of soft-tissue cancer and holds promise for ovarian cancer as well.

The drug, generically known as trabectedin and formerly called ecteinascidin or ET-743, is branded as Yondelis by maker PharmaMar. It was originally made from a sea squirt -- the translucent, siphon-like organism also known as the mangrove tunicate. Yondelis is now synthetically manufactured.

The drug has cancer-fighting properties, although it does not appear to fight all kinds of cancer. It seems particularly effective against a particular kind cancer called myxoid liposarcoma.

Myxoid liposarcoma is a killer. It tends to start deep within the body and spreads quickly. Even when the primary tumor is removed, the cancer spreads to other organs in about 40% of patients. Survival from this point is usually about two years.

Yondelis fights this cancer better than any other known treatment, report Federica Grosso, MD, of Italy's National Cancer Institute in Milan, and colleagues. Their report appears in the June 21 issue of The Lancet.

Grosso and colleagues treated 51 myxoid liposarcoma patients with Yondelis. The results, a median 14 months after treatment:

  • Two patients have no evidence of disease.
  • 24 patients had partial responses to treatment.
  • Overall, more than half of patients responded to treatment.
  • Median progression-free survival after treatment was 14 months.

Yondelis is not without side effects. But it appears to have side effects that are tolerated well, allowing multiple courses of treatment. The most common side effect noted is elevation of liver enzymes that is reversible. The drug does not cause hair loss or diarrhea.

Advanced clinical trials are under way for myxoid liposarcoma -- and for ovarian cancer. Yondelis is being tested in a major, phase III clinical trial for ovarian cancer. It's no cure, but early results look promising. It already has FDA and European Commission "orphan drug" status, making it available for the treatment of soft-tissue sarcomas and ovarian cancer.

Yondelis is also being studied for the treatment of breast cancer, prostate cancer, and childhood sarcomas.

PharmaMar has partnered with Johnson & Johnson to develop Yondelis.

  • Looking for the latest and greatest in cancer treatment? Ask your question on the Cancer Treatments and Advances board of Harold Burstein, MD, PhD, or visit his WebMD Blog.

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